Fiction | On His Own Ground by Vis Nathan

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First published in the December 1976/January 1977 of The London Magazine (Volume 16, No.5)

Gopal entered his cubby-hole surrounded by huge racks bulging with musty files. He removed his cycle clips with a practised flourish and placed them carefully by the inkstand on his table. Then he sat down on his chair, pulling it into a comfortable position. He opened the bottom drawer and pushed into it his lunch box and his flask. He began to hum a few bars of a well-known song from South Indian classical music as he sharpened his pencils, filled his pens and gathered all the implements required for that day’s war with the files. Six puled of them on the table awaited his attention, almost hiding him from anyone who might care to enter his territory. There were three others working beyond the racks in the same room, but they occupied only a quarter of the space he did. Anyone who wanted to see Gopal had to pass four rows of racks on either side and then turn left into his cubby-hole. Gopal was in charge of the revenue files of the past years for the whole district, a Chief Clerical Officer, Grade Three.

He had to work under a light, the windows at his back were blocked by a rack so he could not open them. It would be quite dark if there had not been a light, too hot if there had not been a table-fan perched on a stool beside the table. He worked from the depths of a womb, oblivious of anything that might be outside. Other clerks came to see him occasionally, either for ‘business manoeuvres’ or to hear him hold forth on something. Gopal ventured out sometimes, to go to the lavatory, to smoke a cigarette, sitting on the bench near the pan shop, or to see his immediate boss, Executive Officer (Revenue Section), Grade Two, when he was called, but on the whole he preferred to conduct his business through the messenger. He liked to be in his own territory.

He picked up a file and had begun to study the ramifications of a land dispute when Ponnan, the messenger, loomed over the files on his table.

‘Sir, the egg-eyed one wants the file on the land-tax returns for Tirur Taluk for the whole of this year.’

He handed a note to Gopal. He always read the notes before delivering them. For some reason he found it an amusing diversion and it also made him feel that he too was responsible for what was going on.

‘Ponnan, how many times have I told you not to read my notes!’

Ponnan grinned. He knew Gopal wasn’t angry.

‘So, the egg-eyed one wants the file, eh? Who is he to order me around? Doesn’t he know the procedure? If we wants a file, he should ask Exec. Two. Not me directly. As though I should jump to attention the moment he sneezes! Oh, these new young Assistant Collectors! What sort of training do they give them these days?’

He flipped through the pages of his file, unable to contain his emotion. It seemed like a barrage from a distance, threatening but not yet damaging; it could be though, years of mole-like existence had given him an acute sense of danger.

‘What’s the matter, sir? You look worried.’ Ponnan was always disturbingly direct.

‘I am not!’ Gopal shouted with vehemence.

‘Aren’t you?’ Ponnan grinned again. He was amused by suffering. With one meal a day, hunger nagging him all the time, living in a ramshackle tin-topped hut, he had gone past caring about suffering.

‘I’ll show that brat,’ Gopal gloated over his illusory revenge.

‘What shall I tell him, sir?’

‘Tell him! Here, take this note. The file is tied up with the estimates for next year.’

He scribbled a note to that effect and added as an afterthought, would the Asst. Collector please ask the Exec. Two in future, should he need a file. He chuckled at his own pompous politeness; so there, let him teach the green one a thing or two!

It was difficult to concentrate on his work after this ominous move. It disturbed him. Gopal could not understand why. He had been a clerk for eighteen years, but never once had he felt so threatened. What was the matter with him? For the past month or so, he had seemed to be getting jittery, sometimes he even stared at the files for minutes on end. He was thirty-nine years old, would be forty in three months. Was that it? He was getting old. He would never escape the files now. He glanced over the racks with a feeling that he was trapped; the files, fusty and dog-eared, watched him with malevolent satisfaction. ‘Give in’, they seemed to hiss, ‘it’s no use struggling any more. We’ve almost got you.’

He felt a chill in his heart. Where was the Gopal of college days? He could still hear the burst of applause when he won the 200 metres. He was cheerful, happy-go-lucky and did things with a flourish. Did he not snatch a smile from that black-eyed beauty, to the admiration of his friends when they were girl-watching near the temple? He had felt that surging sensation which washed over everything you saw or did when you were young. The world had seemed a promise and a delight. What went wrong?

Gopal graduated, but he had always been an average student. His enthusiasm for many things could not be trapped for any single-minded purpose. Like all graduates, he had tried many competitive examinations and finally had to hang on to the clerk’s job he had taken while he was doing the exams. Then he married, that was the second stage in the closing circle. You did it because you got bored with disappointments and you needed an outlet for all your pent-up emotions. He really liked his wife; in the early years of marriage he and his wife related to each other so well that everything they felt was tender and spontaneous. But centuries of custom dictating what marriage should be weighed down their relationship. It became such a strain to assert what they felt that they gave in to the demands of custom. Gone was the feeling of love, but there was an immutable bond – wasn’t that what society expected of them? They had three children; as they grew, the circle narrowed.

Still, Gopal was immensely optimistic. He applied for various jobs in the hope that something would turn up. In spite of rejections, he continued it as a habit. He stopped applying only when he had to do so through his own department and his job was threatened. Even this did not dampen his spirits. He entered innumberable lotteries and competitions, hoping he might win. A couple of promotions came his way, for a while he even thought he might escape the files, but his perverseness and his independent spirit did not endear him to his superiors. He got a promotion and was shoved into a cubby-hole to be in charge of the files. Only after he turned thirty-nine did he begin to be afraid.

‘Hello, Gopal.’ Venkat, a clerk from the other side of the racks, came and sat down.

‘What is it?’ Gopal asked petulantly. Venkat was aggrieved.

‘Sorry, did I disturb you?’

‘Go on. Everybody does it anyway.’

‘I came to ask about a problem in this file.’

‘File! File! Why can’t they burn them all? Look at all these! They are growing and growing until one day the whole town will be full of files. The trouble is that nobody throws anything away.’

‘How could you work without the files?’

‘Yes, how could you?’ Gopal mimicked sneeringly.

Venkat didn’t know what had happened to Gopal. He was very generous, usually, in helping others with their problems. He enjoyed solving them, dipping into the bowels of every rack for information. The racks yielded to his deft search while others were easily beaten off. Venkat wondered whether he should stay or go away.

‘What’s the matter, Gopal? You don’t look well.’

‘It is nothing. Just the pressure of work. This egg-eyed one bothers me.’

‘Who? The new Assistant Collector? They say he is strict and very thorough in his work, but he is really a nice man.’

‘Is he? Very thorough, indeed! A man who doesn’t even know the procedure! He asks me for a file!’
 
‘Perhaps he wanted to save time.’

‘Time! Look at the racks. They go back fifty years, some even to a hundred. Most of them, older than me. Time! If you want to save time, burn them all.’

Venkat couldn’t understand the outburst. He decided to go.

‘Anyway, Gopal, I must go. I’ll come back later. Be careful about that new Assistant Collector. He knows the job, they say.’

‘Does he?’ Venkat left hurriedly.

Gopal had no heart to work at all. He had a presentiment that something was going to happen. He waited there in his womb-like cell for something from outside to come and attack him. For so long he had been immune, no one violated his territory. In the past, all his manoeuvres worked, there was a tacit understanding that he was invulnerable on his own ground; at least, his colleagues had played it that way, but now the unknown might do something. ‘Be careful!’, ‘he knows the job, they say’. He felt weak even before anything happened. What was the matter with him? He writhed in agonised expectation.

He rushed out to the pan shop to smoke a cigarette. That might calm his nerves.

‘What’s the matter, Gopal sir? You seem to be running away from something. Seen a ghost or something?’

The hearty pan shop keeper roared with laughter. He always laughed, tears running down from his eyes.

‘Give me a cigarette,’ Gopal almost gasped, his hand shaking as he held it out to receive the cigarette.

‘Hey, don’t die here! I shall be in the newspapers,’ the pan shop keeper guffawed.

‘Leave me alone.’

‘Ah, something must have happened.’

The pan seller didn’t want to tease Gopal any more.

Gopal lit his cigarette from the burning rope and puffed it nervously. What if the Assistant Collector came down to Gopal’s cubby-hole? He wouldn’t do that. A spasm of defiant feeling almost choked Gopal. He coughed violently, the pan shop keeper watched him now with anxiety, but didn’t say anything. I have my dignity too, haven’t I? Gopal thought. He might be an Assistant Collector, so what? Gopal’s independent spirit soared high for a moment. The sound of an answering salvo, trouncing the enemy, rang in his ears. But the afterthought in his note to the Assistant Collector nagged him. It was leaving a flank open. The cigarette burned the tip of his finger and he shook it off quickly, stamping it out with vehemence.

‘See you later, sir.’ Gopal scuttled away without answering.

Back in his cubby-hole, he picked up the file again and tried to concentrate. He read again and again the same sentence. The land-tax collided with each other, lulling his mind to stillness.

‘Come to us, be one of us!’

He looked around, startled. There was no one there, yet he had clearly heard the words spoken. One of the files loosened itself from a top rack and fell on the table in front of him. Gopal stared at the file in dumb fear. He dared not touch it. The file seemed to quiver with his life, he watched it in horrible fascination. It was the land-tax returns for the year in which he was born. He was sure it moved a little. He pinched himself to see if it was all real and felt the numbness of his skin. The file moved again – he could see it coming towards him. Again. He let out a shriek.

‘Sir, sir, what happened?’

Ponnan hurried in, he was coming to him anyway. Behind him rushed the clerks who worked beyond the racks. Gopal stared at them and nearly choked, trying to bring the words out.

‘You…you…see that file there. It jumped.’

‘Calm down, calm down, Gopal. You look very frightened.’

‘I’m telling the truth!’ Gopal shouted.

‘What is it?’

‘You see that file. It jumped from the rack.’

‘Oh, the file. It must have fallen down.’

‘No, it jumped! Suddenly it came alive and started to move towards me.’

‘Rubbish, Gopal. How can a file move? You are imagining things. Perhaps you are tired.’

‘I’m not tired. I saw it move.’

They stared at the file.

‘It’s not moving now.’

Gopal watched it too, it didn’t move.

‘It didn’t now.’

‘You see, you are imagining things.’

‘Maybe.’

‘Why don’t you go home and have a rest?’

Gopal was less tense now, he even felt somewhat silly.

‘Oh, it’s all right. I didn’t sleep well last night. Perhaps I’m tired. A little coffee will perk me up.’

The clerks went away. Gopal pulled out his flask from the drawer and poured himself a cup of coffee.

‘What is it, Ponnan?’ The coffee gave Gopal a new lease of life. He felt expansive.

‘Here’s a note for you, sir.’ Ponnan handed him the note with unusual solemnity.

Gopal read the note and tapped it reflectively with a pencil. The egg-eyed one wanted the file immediately. Aha, surrender order. Oh no, he wasn’t going to show the white flag. Eighteen years of service, he should be given a little more consideration. The coffee had quickened his nerves. He shouldn’t give in so easily. After all, he was Gopal. He would show him, if he hadn’t bothered to sense it already. How many Assistant Collectors he had seen through! The note clamoured its challenge every time he glanced at it. Hell, he would not take it up. He must preserve his dignity at all costs. He was not yet forty. A sudden surge of emotion flowed through him. He was young again, bristling against a challenge. He looked around the racks for a sign, but the files were mute; their mouldiness announced their very death.

He wrote on a piece of paper that the file was not with him. Perhaps it might be with Exec. Two. If the Asst. Collector so desired, Gopal would get it from Exec. Two as soon as he had finished the work in hand.

‘Here, Ponnan, take it.’

Ponnan received it in stunned silence. He had seen the face of the Assistant Collector when he wrote the note. ‘What, no file?’ he had asked Ponnan. Now Ponnan was going back without the file. It couldn’t be good.

‘Is that all, sir?’ he asked.

‘That is all,’ Gopal answered with a flourish. Ponnan walked away.

In his triumph, Gopal hummed a song softly. He pushed aside the file which had fallen from the rack and began to work, singing lustily. He felt cheerful, his spirits soared. Suddenly he heard rapid footsteps coming between the racks. The young Assistant Collector stood before him, looking angry.

‘Mr Gopal, where is the file?’ he asked quietly, suppressing his anger.

‘Did you see my note?’

‘Of course I did.’

‘I was going to check , as soon as I finished this file.’

‘Don’t bother. I checked just now. It is not with Exec. Two.’

‘Oh, I see.’

‘You knew it wasn’t with him.’

‘I thought so. You needn’t have bothered, sir. I could have checked for you.’

‘Bothered? Why did you tell me the file was with him when you knew it wasn’t?’

‘Just a slip, sir.’

‘Look here, Mr Gopal, I asked for a specific file. You lied to me.’

‘Oh no, sir.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Mr Gopal. I wanted the file urgently. The Collector is waiting for a discussion on it.’

‘I didn’t know that, sir.’

‘Why should you? Produce the file now.’

‘All right, sir. I shall bring it to you.’

‘No, I want it now!’

Gopal winced.

‘I have to search for it, sir. You see, there are so many files here.’

‘Are you so incompetent that you can’t keep the files in order? Why should you be in charge of the files?’

Gopal was stunned, as though he had been hit in the ribs.

‘Come on, get it out for me.’

‘Sir, it was taken out a few days ago. That’s why it wasn’t in the rack.

Gopal smothered his wounded feelings.

‘Where is it, here?’ The Assistant Collector rummaged through piles on the floor, throwing aside the unwanted files.

‘Sir, you’ll mix them all up!’ Gopal cried.

‘They’re in disorder, anyway.’ The Assistant Collector went on scattering the files around.

Gopal, choking on his indignity, pulled out the file from the rack behind his chair and gave it to the Assistant Collector.

‘Here it is, sir!’

‘You were hiding it, were you?’

‘No, sir, I just forgot where it was.’

‘Mr Gopal, this is a serious matter. When I want a file, I want it, do you hear?’

‘Yes, sir.’ His territory was overrun.

‘I don’t like insubordination.’ Insulted on his own ground.

‘You’d better come and see me later. I’m in a hurry now.’

Gopal sat there quivering as a mixture of feelings assaulted him. His wounded dignity was the most painful to bear. The Assistant Collector had come into his lair and attacked him without mercy. Gopal felt as though he had no face, his body felt numb and he seemed about to float away. He stared at the scattered files, they lay there as though the guts of the racks had spilled out. He again felt the presence of life in them. The files seemed to quiver as though they were struggling to become mobile. Suddenly the cubby-hole began to grow warm – a kind of warmth which generated life, a pleasant cloying warmth. The files began to move back and forth, lifting and falling, and soon they started to fly around. One by one at first, then more and more, the files jumped from their racks and flew about. Falling with a thud, rising now, they danced, flew and crawled around. Gopal became lighter and lighter, luxuriating in the warmth of his womb-like room. Then he felt a subtle twinge in his heart. He too began to float and fly around.

 

Vis Nathan

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